Kindred Spirits

The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Mertonby Daniel Horan, O.F.M.

Ave Maria Press. 288p $16.95

When Saint Francis Saved the Churchby Jon M. Sweeney

Ave Maria Press. 192p $22

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Enter Pope Francis, unburdened by the richly threaded horse collar-like stole in which newly elected popes had traditionally planted the staff of their authority on St. Peter’s loggia, as monarchs once did their flags on the beaches of newly conquered lands or the fallen cities of conquered ones. The crowds that stretched around the electronically girded world witnessed something very different on that March evening two years ago. They welcomed the first pope who called himself Francis, clad in a white cassock, pewter cross and a skullcap that did not quite fit, who unregally bade the people a good evening and asked only for their prayers. A new age of Franciscan simplicity had been opened by a Jesuit pope, who quickly astonished the world by shedding the modern day equivalent of the riches and vesture Francis put aside to preach the Gospel with a freshened purity of spirit and heart.

Francis of Assisi started a great movement that, as Jon Sweeney notes, was eventually to suffer all the problems with which humans brand even their noblest achievements. Nonetheless, it brought a glowing vision of the earth and all living things to mankind and endowed the church anew with the calling of servant rather than master. It is no accident that brown, with its welcome and warmth, is the dominant color of the followers, almost beyond numbering, in various ways of St. Francis. It is not improbable that Francis was present in G. K. Chesterton’s imagination as he named his fictional priest detective Father Brown, who is at home in the world without being wordly.

These two new books take very different pathways in telling the story of St. Francis. Sweeney follows a more traditional form, reconstructing with modern but weight-bearing materials the tale of Francis’ life that remains moving no matter how often it is told. Sweeney writes very well and recreates critical scenes with admirable clarity. His skill is stunningly exemplified in his sensible but sensitive treatment of Francis’ reception of the stigmata, the wounds of Christ in his own body. Sweeney writes that “the problem...is knowing what to make of it.” Reviewing its possible divine origin, he quotes a Hasidic rabbi who, a century and more ago, wrote of the miracles related to the founder of Hasidism, “Whoever believes all of the Baal Shem Tov is a fool, but whoever denies them is an unbeliever.” Sweeney concludes, in a sentiment that might be pondered in every religious house, “There are reasons why traditions define certain elements of a saintly life as legends: most of all because they are not meant to be scientifically defined. That’s what makes them mysteries.”

Furthermore, Sweeney notes that “the suffering of the wounds doesn’t have to be more important than other aspects of Francis’s life.... In fact, Francis and his first followers may have found whatever happened to him upon the mountain to be less important than many of the other miraculous moments he was privileged to be a part of. Perhaps that is why he never spoke of it.

Sweeney notes that Francis “never praised Sacred Wounds like he praised Brother Wind and Sister Moon,” leaving, as the book makes clear, a heritage for all people of a creation-loving spirituality that, under Pope Francis, stirs the church and world anew in our day.

Horan’s book, while equally the work of a master of St. Francis, approaches him through searching the often anguished life of a monk and spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, who was greatly influenced by Francis and by the friars he came to know at the Franciscan-run St. Bonaventure’s College, at which Merton taught English for a significant period in his early life. It was here that he came to know and be strongly influenced by the Rev. Thomas Plassman, O.F.M., the president who had hired the young man whose spiritual and literary potential he understood and encouraged as a good father would.

Horan, a writer of great strength and depth, is not afraid to let his own experience as a man and a Franciscan express itself as he explores the aspects of Merton’s life that are as challenging as a mountain climb along a jagged and beclouded trail. And it is a challenge to us who, observing from the green meadowed valley below, do not appreciate the price in blood and breath paid by the climber. Merton’s last climb, exploring the mysticism of a far culture, was as arduous and challenging as any he made on his restless journey into the depths of life and self-identity.

Little known, for example, is his life in Europe with his artist parents or the decades of suffering and self-exploration to which they would lead. The reader will not quickly forget Merton the child sitting against a backyard tree learning from a postcard given to him by his father that his mother is dying. Merton’s life will be led with highly dramatic, and often traumatic, events being acted out against placid and traditional backgrounds, like Cambridge and Columbia University, which symbolize the systematic and well-ordered side of scholarship rather than the torment of a highly sensitive genius of the word and the spirit seeking a calling that would integrate his life.

Merton’s life at Cambridge, more bohemian than Dvorak’s symphonies, led to his learning little and his being advised by the man his father selected, before his own premature death from a brain tumor, to mentor and manage the affairs of his son. Horan tells this story in a rich but disciplined style so that, as in his prefatory synthesis of Francis’ life, the reader gets the feel not only of the subject but of the world he passed through.

More mysterious, and no less so for Horan’s compassion, is his thesis that Merton possessed and was possessed by a Franciscan heart and spirituality. As little known to most readers as the fact that Merton fathered a daughter in the tumultuous early period of his life is his strong attraction to the Franciscans and his early application and acceptance as a candidate. This acceptance was reversed, however, for, as the New York superior said, Merton mishandled, so to speak, certain information on his initial application.

Horan sustains his point with many examples, including the influential Sam Walsh at Columbia, who identified Merton’s “Franciscan spirit” to his own intellectual affinity with the Franciscan philosopher Blessed Jon Duns Scotus.

Horan makes the case that Merton brought this Franciscan sensibility into Gethsemani Monastery with him and tracks how it is expressed in the many books and articles he wrote there after resolving the seeming conflict of rejecting the world while remaining an engaged critic of it. His Franciscan embrace of creation and his growth into a voice for peace mirror this influence distinctly. Merton’s struggle, any reader will note, is with being a monk and being a monk/celebrity who gradually resolves conflicts with a succession of abbots by moving into a structure of his own and acquiring an assistant to help with his writing and mail.

Horan does not deal with one of the last great challenges of Merton’s life, his falling passionately in love, as described in detail by his official biographer, Michael Mott, with the nurse in the office of his doctor. That was part of the voyage into mystery that Thomas Merton made famous early in his life by his Seven-Storey Mountain, and he became a prominent figure in American civic and religious dialogue, One can readily believe this long journey was inspired by Francis of Assisi.

All these were live dynamics in that final journey into deepening his knowledge of another form of prayer and contemplation. He had finished a morning lecture, said that he had to disappear until evening and suggested that everyone have a Coca-Cola. A simple yet profoundly human goodbye, one that would have suited Francis fine. A few moments later he passed immediately, by accidental electrocution, into the eternity he knew so well.

Anybody who wants to understand Francis, the Franciscan-motivated Merton, or perhaps the new pope who is bringing the spirit of Francis to the world again, can only profit from reading these books.

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